The Alabama Build-Vention, 15 Years of Volunteerism and More
The Alabama Build-Vention was an annual charity event I co-organized and ran for 15 years, the last year being in 2016. Hundreds of people participated over the years, martial arts instructors and students from the U.S., Canada, and as far away as The United Kingdom and Australia. The event raised more than a quarter of a million dollars and facilitated approximately 40,000 volunteer man-hours of labor to benefit the people of Greensboro, Alabama.
The events were co-hosted by the formidable housing activist Ms. Pam Dorr, who was the Executive Director of Hero Housing (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization) in Greensboro. Pam currently works in the SF Bay Area as director of affordable housing at the Menlo Park-based nonprofit Soup.
One of the benefits of doing this event was that I got to work with Pam. You can read about and watch some of here activities in the following articles:
Ted Talks (on Youtube).
The reason Greensboro, Alabama was my chosen venue for the “Build-Vention” (a martial arts teacher’s convention in the form of a house-build and/or building / community renovation project) was due to the genius and work of architect / teacher Samuel Mockbee.
I first heard about Mockbee’s work in 2001 when I chanced across a couple of articles about the work he was doing with architectural students in rural Alabama with a program he co-founded called The Rural Studio. What I saw in Mockbee’s efforts to teach —was that he was transcending his subject matter. He wasn’t simply teaching young architects-in-training to make things, he was teaching them to think about why they were making things —and what that work could mean in the world.
That’s the kind of martial arts teacher I was seeking to be. I felt to do the best work I could I had to rise above the technical aspects of martial arts training, the obvious, and emphasize a kind of martial arts practice that brought dignity, purpose, and meaning to the work —and to the world.
By bringing martial arts teachers to Greensboro, perhaps the most unlikely place anyone might think of for a martial arts “convention” or teacher-training program, I sought to get teachers to “think outside of the dojo,” to get hands-on experience with all that went into integrating one’s work into the very fabric of his or her community. So imagine 50 to 100 mostly unskilled laborers, martial artists who could throw kicks and wrestle, but who knew little or nothing about construction, coming to Greensboro for a “blitz-build” week —and actually building a house for someone in need. It was a giant test of everyone’s skills to explain to their students why they were going to Alabama, why they were soliciting funds for the event, what it meant for them as teachers, and then actually arriving in Greensboro, putting on a tool belt, and going about the work of building or renovating a structure.
What I wanted instructors to go back to their schools with was an awareness of how they were participating in their own communities; of how, with some elbow grease and a bit of innovative thinking, they could cultivate community projects that expressed the spirit and intent of their work on the mats. Many of the school owners who came to work in Alabama went back to their hometowns and started looking for and organizing events that utilized their students and fellow community members as an army to, literally, “take the work out of the dojo and into the world.”
In addition to organizing and publicizing the event, arranging lodging for and feeding the volunteers, and making sure nobody died on the worksites (and that we actually got something done), I would often invite guest-builders / speakers in to introduce my fellow martial artists to people I thought could have a positive impact on their work.
Our guests included environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, Executives from the company Zen Planner, Academy Award winning filmmaker Nancy Walzog (and family), social justice activist Keshia Thomas, diabetes education activist Andy Mandell, aka Mr. Diabetes®, and community youth activist Alexandra Fuller.
Working on the Alabama Build-Vention was an honor and privilege —and I would, here, like to thank (again) the many people who came to help, who donated money and/or their time, and who in any way supported this worthwhile event.